The Dune crypto collective is facing a reckoning

The Dune crypto collective is facing a reckoning

Spice DAO, the cryptocurrency collective that bought a script bible for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-made Dune adaptation, is apparently still figuring out what to make of its success. Earlier this week, the collective stopped working with a core member who posted virulently hateful messages as part of a self-described internet art project. Now, the project’s originator has suggested Spice DAO will back off its quixotic goal of creating a community-owned media powerhouse — but it’s not clear the group is actually changing any plans.

Towards the end of 2021, the decentralized autonomous organization (or DAO) raised millions of dollars to purchase a rare copy of Jodorowsky’s Dune bible, then found itself with a sizable leftover treasury after winning the auction. Its backers voted to launch a complicated multi-pronged media venture with the money, including a writing contest to acquire intellectual property or “IP” that could be turned into an animated series. (Contrary to several reports, Spice DAO did not claim the series would directly adapt Jodorowsky’s Dune.)

The group later signed a deal with Love, Death and Robots writer Philip Gelatt to deliver a script based on the winning entry. It voted to pay $1 million over three years to partner with comics artist Frank Miller’s new publishing venture on a non-fungible token (NFT) lineup. Meanwhile, it’s organized long-term storage for the physical copy of the Dune bible and discussed plans for public exhibition.

Spice DAO remains far from completing its goal of making a TV series, and its level of “decentralization” is debatable — there’s a tiny core team that workshops proposals and handles logistics for essentially all operations. But it’s got an unusual amount of real-world activity for a loosely organized crowdfunding collective. It’s one of the weirdest and most elaborate ventures to come out of the crypto hype boom, and it’s so far avoided the intense meltdowns some other groups have suffered.

But a recent controversy compromised one of the DAO’s key organizers, Charlie / Charlotte Fang. Fang was part of the Remilia Collective, which helped launch Spice DAO alongside crypto millionaire and Dune enthusiast Soban “Soby” Saqib. Fang, described in a January post as “essential in the project’s conceptualization and launch,” was then named the group’s strategy lead and treasurer.

This weekend, Fang admitted to also being behind “Miya,” an online personality whose commentary included over-the-top bigoted screeds, racial slurs, promotion of self-harm and anorexia, and alleged links to an online “suicide cult” dubbed Systemspace. Fang characterized the comments as “banter among friends” and “a form of critical satire” made for an internet art project. But ultimately, Fang declared that the association was “toxic baggage” and stepped down from Milady Maker, a Remilia NFT project. “Miya has nothing to do with Milady Maker and should stay that way so I’ll be stepping down from the team from here,” Fang wrote.

As Kotaku noted, the initial implications for Spice DAO weren’t clear. Spice DAO members (people who hold a token called $SPICE) questioned Fang’s continued involvement on the group’s Discord server, and on May 24th, the other core members removed Fang from the list of treasury keyholders. “He stepped down from the core team,” said Spice DAO in a statement to The Verge.

Saqib issued a harsh condemnation of Fang the same day. “Just want to be very clear that I completely condemn Charlie. Remilia’s involvement in [Spice DAO] was limited and we’re working through a plan on how to allow token holders to view the book and issue a refund to make holders whole,” Saqib said on Twitter. In the same tweet, he implied that Spice DAO would be scaling back its plans — saying that “the DAO will no longer pursue creating IP.”

Saqib explained his rationale in subsequent tweets. “This DAO was rushed from the beginning and has taught me a lot. Right now, the Dune Bible is being scanned. Once these scans are done we will figure out a way for token holders to view its contents. In hindsight I think the DAO should’ve stayed focused on this rather than trying to make a decentralized studio,” he wrote. “I am personally disgusted by this whole thing. What I’ve learned from this is that DAOs are very hard and tokens are a bad way to bootstrap communities around IP.”

It’s not clear what “no longer pursue creating IP” means or what a “refund” would entail. A tweet from the official Spice DAO Twitter account indicated that it’s still pursuing a “multimillion-dollar animated series” with Gelatt. It said it would soon also release a 60-second silent animation based on another contest entry, something members voted to pay artist Ben Clarkson $24,000 to make in March. And Saqib himself said that the team was moving ahead with the launch of the Frank Miller NFTs, with $SPICE holders getting free tokens from the series. Saqib declined immediate comment on SpiceDAO’s plans in a Twitter direct message.

While Saqib isn’t a member of the core team, he remains a major Spice DAO figurehead and holds a treasury key, and his tweets indicate a waning appetite for the group’s most ambitious ideas. But operations lead Kortelin posted a far more rousing, albeit nebulous, description of Spice DAO’s goals on the group’s forum — suggesting the group is still very interested in media production.

The next phase of our growth is to build a proprietary decentralized storytelling protocol. We are pioneering decentralized storytelling in Web3 as a new form of collaborative media that is directed, steered and owned by the community itself. We are a content incubator, a crypto native think tank which has been commercialized and monetized by the community that acts as collective author of each project. Spice DAO is gamifying user-created content which engages the community to actively participate in the process of creation rather than passively experiencing it.

The first project we would like to adapt using these new smart contracts is the Dune Bible. As the co-owners of edition number five of the Dune Bible every Spice DAO member belongs to a very exclusive club. Let’s work together to make the contents public once and for all!

Via Discord, Kortelin declined to comment publicly on what a “decentralized storytelling protocol” would include or how the Dune bible would fit into it.

Through all this, Spice DAO is contending with the effects of a recent crypto crash, particularly the dramatic drop in the value of tokens like Ethereum, in which most of Spice DAO’s funds are stored. (There’s a long-term plan to move to the USDC stablecoin.) The group’s current stash of Ethereum would have been worth $3 million when the auction was held in late November. Today, its value is closer to $1.3 million. The actual $SPICE token has been worth close to nothing since early 2022 and is used almost entirely for voting. Things like the Frank Miller NFT lineup could bring new funds into the treasury since Spice DAO can collect a commission if they’re sold or resold. But it would require a major infusion of cash to make a full-fledged TV series, especially if Spice DAO ends up offering to refund backers’ money.

DAO token holders are supposed to be in control of any major decisions, including whether they get refunds or keep “creating IP.” In practice, however, all the core team’s proposals have been comfortably approved. So its future direction will likely be decided by a small group at the top — with ordinary $SPICE holders along for the ride.

In his tweet thread, Saqib expressed pride that Spice DAO had at least accomplished its core goal: acquiring the Dune Bible. “Despite its shortcoming, SpiceDAO was still able to secure a culturally significant artifact using Web3,” he wrote. “Let’s complete the core function of the DAO, make spice holders as whole as possible, and move on.”

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